Friday, 2 August 2019

Natural England spreads phobia of dock plants with Ragwort hysteria

Today's posting is about the effect that the proven hysteria on ragwort is having on other wild plants also there is a petition to the government that has been raised to repeal the Weeds Act.

The Weeds Act causes a lot of problems. It, is as we will see below a really old law. It gives the government the power to create orders to control certain weeds. Out of fear of orders nature reserves are damaged and eco-diverse road verges are cleared. Some people even misunderstand the law, or decide to misrepresent it. You can look on twitter, people say they are controlling weeds, usually ragwort, they are asked why and often say , falsely, that it is a legal requirement, which it isn't.  The British Horse Society who are behind a lot of the hysteria are STILL saying this so it is no wonder that people believe it!

 A bit of background, in 1920 , nearly a hundred years ago, the then government was  concerned to increase agricultural production which was then in its pre-industrialised state.  They created an amendment to the Corn production Act 1917 with   the Agriculture Act 1920 which produced a list of weeds that  they were to be given the power to order controlled. This was part of what is now a quaint and archaic attitude to agricultural husbandry, It of course long predates the modern concern with biodiversity, the loss of which is often caused by the modern agricultural methods which did not exist in 1920. Note the weeds were not made illegal to grow and the main aim seems to have been that wealthy patrician landowners who were very prevalent in parliament in those days were concerned that their tenants could be forced to maintain their property in they way that they wanted.

They created a list of "injurious weeds". Now I have a full explanation of what Injurious weeds means on my website. It is often translated as harmful, but that is not the real full meaning.  In this context , it means harmful to the interests of  Agriculture. I will quote a section of that website below.  This refers to a debate on the Act which took place on the 3rd November 1920.

There are many uses of the words "injurious" and "injuriously" during the debate. All of them have the "harmful/prejudicial to interests" meaning including this from James Gardiner then MP for Kinross and Western Perthshire.
"Every agricultural committee I know has intimate knowledge of agriculture and an intimate knowledge of the district in which control is to be exercised. They are, therefore, well able to ensure that nothing injurious to the cultivation or the country results from the orders they give. "
It is very clear that the meaning of the word as used in this legislation is not "toxic" or "poisonous" but harmful to the interests of land or agriculture.

You will also see a similar use of the word in regards to the interests of people being used in the
old Act to which I link to above.

Later on  the Weeds Act 1959 was created. It wasn't actually discussed at all in parliament it just transferred across the old legislation into a new form.

The list of weeds is listed in the law as

    spear thistle (cirsium vulgare (Savi) Ten.),
    creeping or field thistle (cirsium arvense (L.) Scop.),
    curled dock (rumex crispus L.),
    broad-leaved dock (rumex obtusifolius L.), and
    ragwort (senecio jacobaea L.);

The modern scientific name for ragwort is Jacobaea vulgaris.

It is important to note that the plants other than ragwort are actually listed in books on free wild food.
They are actually edible. Of course docks contain oxalic acid, just like rhubarb, and in excess this can cause problems but they are less of a problem than many foods. For example, eating a whole nutmeg might be seriously dangerous. It is the dose that makes the poison.

There is an issue that had been raised about ragwort.  It was claimed that it was poisonous to handle. The evidence is very very poor, the toxins are very poorly absorbed through the skin, but it makes a nice scare story of course so it gets circulated. A colleague of mine asked Defra for their evidence. It came as no surprise when the said that they didn't have any. Then quite disturbingly they  said that Professor Knottenbelt thought it was dangerous to handle. I blogged about him a few months ago. This is the anti-ragwort campaigner who claimed it was causing serious problems in South Africa, where in fact it has never been recorded and that ragwort was responsible for the decline in the cinnabar moth, which is actually reliant on it for food! As I said I collect his stuff avidly, because in my honest opinion, he cannot open his mouth on the subject without putting both feet in it very firmly!

Dock leaves are a traditional cure for nettle stings. The two plants often occur together and if I get  nettle sting I have since childhood rubbed a dock leaf on the sting to relieve the pain.

Why then in the name of all reason does English Nature tell people to wear protective clothing when handling dock leaves (and all the other weeds on this list)? Surely even thistles aren't that dangerous! 
 Here is the text from the form on reporting Injurious Weeds 

WARNING: on no account should a member of the public attempt to enter railway land or verges alongside motorways to verify the presence of weeds or to remove them. You must also have the owner’s permission to enter other land. You are also advised to wear protective clothing and gloves whenever injurious weeds are handled.

It is an example of the well-known and well-documented hysteria on ragwort leading to even the government's nature conservation body in England promoting unwarranted fears about nature. This is just unacceptable! We never had this sort of form or advice before the hysterical campaign against ragwort started. It is also rather significant that they fail to mention that it is illegal to remove the plants without the permission of the landowner or occupier.

The problem is there is a history of officials deliberately exaggerating the risks because they want to help the campaign against ragwort.  There are many examples such as this one. Bill Ellson made a public Freedom of Information request to Surrey County Council because they had a real hatchet job on their website on ragwort that contained a whole list of well-known myths from the anti-ragwort campaign. He asked them for the evidence behind their claims. This is often a very good strategy because when you do it then you find that the information they are using you nearly always find it isn't really evidence at all but someone's assertion in a magazine like Horse and Hound or The Spectator and often there is another piece of juicy misinformation that is invaluable in showing what is going on. In this case the Council  had to admit that they didn't have that evidence. but significantly the website originally had the words,"Hopefully it is not too late to help in the campaign against this insidious killer." on it. It seems that it was very clear what the intention of  the Council was to promote the campaign against ragwort with scary and false information. The Council tried to say that they originally did have evidence, but as an expert I know it was exactly the kinds of articles which I mention above and that I debunk here regularly.

There is a general pattern you see here on official websites, because there is a law called the Weeds Act, there is a general panic about obeying it and even to misrepresent what it says. Defra at one time were strongly implying that the law said that you must not allow the plants to spread. The Welsh equivalent of Defra has had officers working in a part of Wales where lots of people still speak the language producing information and rather sneakily they have written the Welsh language version with stronger language. Farmers and other landowners who are the target are different to the general population. They in particular are less likely to be immigrants and more likely to have inherited their land over the generations and therefore still speak Welsh. ( I speak it fluently.)

A lot of this crazy habitat destroying activity would not exist if it were not for the Weeds Act.

Here is the petition. Please do help those of us working on this and sign it. You really can help conservation by doing just this little thing.

Repeal the archaic Weeds Act 1959 to benefit pollinators and wider biodiversity.


Ragwort Hysteria latest entries

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